From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.
Cait Coker is a genre historian with a background in fan history, women’s writing and publishing, and print history. Her essays have appeared in The Journal of Fandom Studies and The Seventeenth Century, among others. Today, Catherine talks about the issues raised in her Transformative Works and Cultures article titled “The margins of print? Fan fiction as book history.”
How did you first get into fandom and fanworks?
I was a teenager back in the 1990s when the Internet was becoming more widely available, and I came across a book on sale at Walmart (I was a kid in a small town, what can I say?) called Net Trek, which was a guide to Star Trek sites and listservs online….with a whole chapter dedicated to fan fiction (and even a little bit about K/S slash!). A few months later I got my first computer (and the Internet) and immediately started looking for fan fiction for all of my favorite shows, and soon after started writing stories myself. It was all downhill from there!
What first made you interested in book history?
Fast-forward fifteen years and I’m an academic librarian, and one of my duties at the time was teaching book history classes. I had gotten through my entire academic life without ever even hearing about it, and I had to immediately brush up on the basics of the field and learn how to use and teach with the presses kept in the library’s workshop.
What struck me fairly early on was that there was no mention of women at all in the bulk of the scholarship, which led me to go back to school for my doctorate (currently in progress) in order to, apparently, argue with an entire discipline. Along the way I co-founded the Women in Book History Bibliography with my friend and colleague Kate Ozment, because it turns out there is quite a bit of scholarship on the topic, but it’s widely disparate and not always even labelled as such.
But when you look at the bulk of the reference books for book history, what becomes painfully apparent very quickly is the focus on Anglo-European print culture as a massive default; the words “women,” “gender,” and “race” don’t even appear as encyclopedia entries. And as I mention in my article, the academic study of non-European book history is so neglected that it is literally easier to find scholarship on the history of K/S than it is to find articles on, say, women papermakers in China! How does that even work? And there’s a small and growing body of work in the field on the digital age, but nothing on fan writing and fanzine production despite the vast, vast quantities of it! So I’m fascinated at what can be learned when you make disciplines talk to one another, and bring the separate methodologies together.
Part of what your essay looks at is how women’s writing has been overlooked by scholars and the public because of its private versus commercial distribution. The Internet is an even more public forum today than books. Will that change how writing genres dominated by women are remembered?
I honestly don’t know; history is in the hands of those who write it, and the term “public” has become so problematic with how we view social media and online presences. But if you look back to where we started, you can see some possible patterns. Margaret Ezell’s book Writing Women’s Literary History (1993) examines how early women writers like AphraBehn were actually a part of the literary scene and then canon, and then subsequently removed over time, and then by the time Virginia Woolf creates the myth of “Judith Shakespeare” the idea of the impossibility of early women writers takes hold, so that the last thirty years of recovery work for scholars has been not only finding the texts that women wrote but fighting against their dismissal for being insufficiently literary/feminist/what have you.
Meanwhile, women’s writing is always associated with genre of one kind or another: in the earlier centuries it was the rise of the novel, and today it’s “women’s fiction” or romance. There was an example last year of a woman journalist’s book about going undercover to teach in North Korea, observing this very closed and politically fraught society, escaping—and then when her book comes out it’s marketed as an Eat, Pray, Love sort of memoir and subsequently attacked as such! And so genre is used to discredit women’s writing! Joanna Russ’s book How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983) has such a great breakdown about how this pattern is used over and over again to disqualify and dismiss women writers, and it’s a book that has sadly all but disappeared itself: it was out of print until it was partially resurrected last year, when the University of Texas Press began selling it as a Print On Demand title online.
The question of public/private is also something that has dogged the history of women’s writing too, and there are no easy answers, then or now. When Theoryofficgate happened, Anne Jamison wrote about how online fora are not private spaces, and if you want to have privately circulated fan fiction, you should go back to print. And the idea of print as a limited and, in a way, elite form of consumption was just so fascinating to me, because in book history scholarship the arguments have always been for seeing print as this great democratizing force! But you can see a number of print “fan books” appearing on crowdfunding sites, so maybe there is something to that interpretation!
How did you hear about the OTW’s work and what do you see its role as?
I think I became aware of the OTW when the journal Transformative Works and Cultures first came out; it was the first academic journal to focus completely on Fan Studies and I thought that was so great for the field! I later found AO3 as the fandoms started to migrate towards it and away from Livejournal. I think the OTW’s work in championing and preserving fan work is so incredibly important, and I hope it gets to continue in those roles for a very long time!
What fandom things have inspired you the most?
I think fandom’s intersections with social justice and social activism always inspire me the most—and at the same time, when fandom screws up, it always scalds my soul the worst, because it takes away from fans’ safe space. I know so many people who came to accept their own queerness through fandom, and I think that’s incredibly important, but it’s also clear how far we have to go in so many directions: I’m thinking of Racefail here, and how it’s been almost a decade but we still see the ramifications of it in so many different ways. Fandom pushing back against the status quo is and always has been so important—you see it in fan writing going all the way back to the 1930s!—and I think acafandom is starting to get there too.
Rukmini Pande’s Decolonizing Fan Studies Bibliography collects and signalboosts a lot of important scholarship to make a (much-needed) intervention in the field, and there’s a growing number of other studies to look at fandom as a problematic space as often as a utopic one! Using fandom and fan scholarship to literally change the world? That’s as awesome as it gets!
Catch up on earlier guest posts